As energy import costs soar around the world and climate crises take their toll, interest in nuclear power is on the rise as nations scramble to find alternative sources.
Investment in nuclear power declined after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, as fears about its safety grew and governments spooked.
But following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the subsequent squeezing of energy supplies and pressure from Europe to wean itself off Russian oil and gas, the tide is now turning in favor of nuclear.
Governments face tough decisions with rising gas and electricity bills and scarce resources threatening to cause widespread suffering this winter.
Some experts argue that nuclear power should not be considered an option, but others argue that, in the face of so many crises, it must remain part of the global energy mix.
One country reconsidering nuclear power is Japan, where the 2011 accident caused many nuclear reactors to be suspended over safety concerns.
This week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for an effort to revive the country’s nuclear industry and build new atomic power plants.
Other countries that were looking to move away from nuclear power abandoned those plans – at least in the short term.
Less than a month after the Russian attack on Ukraine, Belgium has delayed its plan to abandon nuclear energy by 2025 for ten years.
While nuclear energy, currently used in 32 countries, provides 10% of the world’s electricity production, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised its projections in September for the first time since the disaster of 2011.
The IAEA now expects installed capacity to double by 2050 under the most favorable scenario.
Even in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, going nuclear is no longer a taboo subject as the energy crisis reignites debate over whether to close the country’s last three nuclear power plants by the end of 2022. .
Berlin said last month it would await the outcome of a “stress test” of the national power grid before deciding whether to stick with phasing out.
Greenpeace Germany climate and energy expert Gerald Neubauer said going nuclear was “not a solution to the energy crisis”.
He said nuclear energy would have “limited” effectiveness in replacing Russian gas because it is mainly “used for heating” in Germany and not for electricity generation.
“The reactors would only save the gas used for electricity, it would save less than one percent of gas consumption,” he added.
But according to Nicolas Berghmans, energy and climate expert at the IDDRI think tank, extending the use of nuclear power “can help”.
“Europe is in a very different energy situation, with several overlapping crises: Russian gas supply problem, drought which has reduced the capacity of dams, low yield of French nuclear power plants… So all the levers count “, he added. said.
The pro-nuclear lobby says it’s one of the world’s best options for avoiding climate change because it doesn’t directly emit carbon dioxide.
In fact, nuclear energy represents a larger share of the global energy mix in most scenarios proposed by the IPCC, the United Nations climate experts, to alleviate the global climate crisis.
While electricity needs are exploding, several countries have expressed the wish to develop nuclear infrastructures, including China – which already has the largest number of reactors – as well as the Czech Republic, India and Poland since nuclear power offers a alternative to coal.
Similarly, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands have similar ambitions, and even the United States where President Joe Biden’s investment plan encourages the development of the sector.
IPCC experts acknowledge that the deployment of nuclear energy “may be constrained by societal preferences” as the subject still divides opinions due to the risk of catastrophic accidents and the still unresolved question of the safe disposal of Radioactive waste.
Some countries, such as New Zealand, oppose nuclear power, and the issue has also been hotly debated within the European Union over whether it should be listed as “green” energy.
Last month, the European Parliament approved a controversial proposal giving a sustainable finance label to investments in gas and nuclear energy.
Other issues remain with nuclear infrastructure, including the ability to build new reactors with tightly controlled costs and timelines.
Berghmans pointed to “long construction delays”.
“We are talking about medium-term solutions, which will not resolve market tensions” because they will come too late to deal with climate crises, he said, but suggested focusing on the “dynamic” sector. “renewable energies that can be immediately useful.